What do people regret as they lie breathing their last breaths?
Cliché shit, mostly.
“Oh, I wish I’d ignored my family less”.
“Oh, I wish I’d actually done what I wanted to do”.
“Oh, I wish I’d divorced my wife, married my mistress, and run away to Mexico”.
Some people like to use that as an thought exercise. If you think about what you will regret on your deathbed, you can arrange your life accordingly. Maybe that’s useful.
But even if we can predict what we will regret, can we really change it? Personally, I know I will regret being so lazy, not working on my health more, not writing more, and of course not being with my family more. But can I fix those things with a wave of my hand, just because I know I will regret my choices when I’m dying?
Shit, no. I know I will regret half of my choices while I’m still making them. And I make them anyway. Why? Because humans are complicated animals. Our logical brain is not in the driver’s seat.
So when Mr. Logical Brain says, “Hey fuckwit, maybe don’t eat an entire box of cereal and binge Netflix for 4 hours”, Mr. Emotional Brain will reply, “fuck you this is happening”.
Most of our regrets come from the emotional side of our brain. It’s the piece of us that pushes us towards greasy food, sloppy sex, and indolence in the extreme. Apes love to do things today that they will regret tomorrow, because they can’t think that far ahead. Apes don’t have a voice in their head saying, “this is going to make you sick, also you’re a fat shit”. Their voice says, “holy shit this is delicious, keep eating this until you either explode or puke”.
But maybe thinking of death is more valuable than simply imagining what you might regret as you die. Maybe the remembrance of death every day can subtly guide us to act how we should. If we tell ourselves every day, “I am going to die”, will that somehow guide us? Seneca thought so, and I tend to trust his judgement. The dude was fucking hardcore.
Memento Mori. The Remembrance of Death.
We think daily of death, and this leads us to behave somewhat more in line with our beliefs. Probably.
But there are more regrets in life than those we find upon our deathbeds.
The regrets of the living are a different shade of monster. These are distinct from the sleepy regrets that creep up on us over a lifetime, slowly strangling us with tendrils of self-hatred.
No, these regrets are more real. They’re present. They’re the regrets of the living, and they are very much alive themselves.
Most people never do something they will come to profoundly regret. Most people never evolve morally, never sink to those low places that few sane people can sympathize with. Most people never return from those places. Some of us have been there. Some of us know deep, painful regret. Not me, because I’m perfect, but some of us.
What do we do with these regrets? We can’t banish them merely by being a bit less lazy or a bit less apathetic for the day. These are demons that grasp us by the very soul. They will not be banished without a fight.
Maybe God can take them from us. We pray to a higher power to be cleansed of our pasts, because we know that no power on Earth can save us from ourselves. We are monsters, and nothing within our power can make us into men again.
But somehow, a belief in God can take those regrets away for a time. We pray to God to be cleansed of the sins of our past, and we feel whole for a time. We feel at peace, because now we are a different person than the person who did those fucked up things. We are changed. Aren’t we?
But what we’ve done will always be there in the back of our minds. No matter what we do, there are certain actions that, once taken, can never be undone. We must live with our choices, and certain choices live on within us forever.
We can be forgiven but we can never forget.